Category Archives: Licensing

Software licensing: it ain’t necessarily so…

porgyIt ain’t necessarily so
The t’ings dat yo’ li’ble
To read in de Bible,
It ain’t necessarily so.*

The theme of today’s sermon is the commercial supply of software, and the contracts that are used for such supply.
Typically, such contracts provide for a licence to use the licensor’s intellectual property. As a result, software licensing is commonly thought of as a type of IP or technology licence. However, in IP Draughts’ view, there are flaws in this approach. Many software supply agreements are closer, conceptually, to a sale of goods than to an IP licence.
Grant
In many technology licence agreements, the licence grant is at the heart of the agreement, often placed “front and centre” in clause 2. Much thought is given to defining the intellectual property that is to be licensed, the types of licensed product that may be made and sold under the licence, and any field and territory restrictions.
By contrast, the software licence agreement will often not get into the question of what IP is being licensed. This omission would be extraordinary in most technology licensing, but in software licensing it is regarded as normal – the customer doesn’t care what IP is being licensed, as long as it won’t be blocked off from using the software in accordance with the terms permitted by the agreement. This is because what the customer is really buying is a product; the IP licence is secondary.
Supply of product
In many commercial software supply agreements, the heart of the agreement is the supply of a product, and associated terms, including specification, warranties, delivery, acceptance, and ongoing support. The agreement will usually include licence terms, but they tend to be ancillary to the main commercial provisions. Because software is an electronic product, which can be reproduced virtually without additional cost, a supplier will usually wish to place limits on the use that can be made of the software. The price charged for the software may be based on the extent of use that the customer is permitted to have under the contract. A convenient contractual mechanism for setting these limits is to grant a limited IP licence.
A distinction should be made between supply of software to an end user (under an end-user licence) and supply of software to a business that will distribute copies of the software, or incorporate it into another product for supply to an end user. The recipient under either type of agreement will typically be permitted to use the software under written licence terms which set limits on the permitted use.

Implied and express terms

The use of a licence mechanism in software supply is understandable, for several reasons. It provides a way of limiting the use that the customer can make of the software, which enables the supplier to maintain some control over reproduction of the software and to establish robust pricing models. Perhaps it points the courts away from the idea that software should be treated as the sale of goods, which might have unfortunate consequences for the supplier, including:
  1. The application of laws on “exhaustion of rights” and “non-derogation from grant” – but over time these areas of law are encroaching on software supply – eg see the UsedSoft case.
  2. The incorporation of implied warranties into the contract, eg in the UK warranties of title and quiet enjoyment under the Sale of Goods Act 1979.  Similar warranties can be found in some other jurisdictions, eg countries that have incorporated the UN Convention on the International Sale of Goods into their national law.

As previously mentioned on this blog (see last link above), the implied warranty of quiet enjoyment has been held to have been breached if a purchase of goods is sued by a third party for IP infringement. It might be argued that industry practice deals with this issue explicitly, so that it is not necessary to get into academic discussions about whether software is goods for the purposes of sale of goods legislation. The issue is dealt with explicitly in software licence agreements that include (as many do) either a warranty of non-infringement of third party IP, and/or an indemnity against liability arising from such infringement.

The practice of including such warranties and indemnities is much less commonly encountered in technology licensing, particularly in the case of early-stage technology licensing. This contrasting practice reflects, in IP Draughts’ view, the reality that software supply is very close to a supply of goods and not very close to a licence of technology.

 

Competition law

A little over ten years ago, there was much fanfare over the inclusion of software copyright licensing in the 2004 EU Technology Transfer Block Exemption Regulation. Previous versions of the regulation (they tend to be replaced and updated every 10 years or so) had focussed only on patent and know-how licensing.  Ten years later, the European Commission has had second thoughts, and the 2014 version of the regulation, and associated guidelines, clarify that most software licensing should be considered under the block exemption regulation for distribution of goods. Rhetorical question: could this be because software supply is much closer to the sale of goods than it is to technology licensing?

 

Convenience of lawyers?

A possible reason why software supply is thought of as an IP transaction lies in the organisation of law firms. Complex, technology-related contracts are often dealt with by a specialist department of the law firm, sometimes called an IP and IT department, or a TMT department, or similar.

IP Draughts' father bought one of these in 1979, and IP Draughts programmed it to perform invoicing and payroll functions.

IP Draughts’ father bought one of these in 1979, but applications software wasn’t available. IP Draughts programmed it to perform invoicing and payroll functions, saving the programs onto cassette tapes.

Software supply agreements have only been around since the 1980s, and when they first appeared it was understandable that lawyers and their clients struggled to fit the facts of software supply into a conventional commercial law category. Established law and practice in relation to the sale of goods didn’t quite fit the new technologies. 30 years on, we should be more confident about treating commercial software supply as a variant on the sale of goods.

 

*Written by Ira Gershwin, from Porgy & Bess

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Who dreamt up the idea that licensees must own their improvements?

bonkersIt’s bonkers.

According to the European Commission’s Competition Directorate (DG COMP), which sets competition (antitrust) policy for the European Union (EU), so-called grant-back clauses are potentially anti-competitive (and therefore illegal) in IP licence agreements.

What is a grant-back clause?

What is a grant-back clause? It is a clause in a licence agreement that states that, if the licensee makes any improvements to the licensed technology, the licensee is required to license or assign the intellectual property in those improvements to the licensor.

In many of the licence agreements that IP Draughts encounters, a grant-back clause would be considered normal and uncontroversial by both licensor and licensee. Consider the example of a made in chinatechnology in the consumer electronics field. The licensor is a small start-up business that has lovingly developed this technology over several years, from its origin as the bright idea of an electronics student to the point of bringing to market a commercial product. It doesn’t have the resources or experience to make and sell the product on a large scale, and it appoints an exclusive licensee for the EU territory who has experience of selling consumer electronics, and who will manufacture and sell the product. Or, to be accurate, the licensee will arrange manufacture by a sub-contractor in China.

In a recent transaction between EU-based parties, in which IP Draughts was involved, the parties discussed whether the product might need to be modified by the licensee so as to make it better from a technical or marketing perspective. During this conversation, the licensee commented, without prompting, that “of course” the licensor would own these modifications and would be free to use them after the agreement came to an end. This ownership position would be achieved by including a grant-back clause in the licence agreement.

no brainerSimple, you might think. If the licensee is willing to accept a grant-back clause, how could it possibly be anti-competitive?

Perhaps it wouldn’t, but it would be a brave lawyer who would advise that there was no risk of a breach of Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. Let’s consider why this might be.

DG COMP’s view of grant-back clauses

Stating the EU legal position on grant-back clauses accurately requires a host of qualifications, which are tedious but necessary. In the opinion of DG COMP, certain kinds of grant-back clauses, namely assignments-back and exclusive licences-back of licensee improvements, but not non-exclusive licences-back, are potentially anti-competitive. And this only applies if the agreement is sufficiently significant to affect trade between member states of the EU and is therefore subject to Article 101 of the TFEU.

So, you can drive a coach and horses through the qualifications, and the issue goes away, particularly if the licensee is willing to accept the grant-back clause? Not really. Let’s consider the issues in turn.

  1. Does the agreement affect trade between member states, so that it is subject to the Article 101 regime? The case law does not suggest that an exclusive licence agreement covering multiple territories in the EU would fall outside the EU antitrust regime.
  2. Does DG COMP’s opinion matter; surely what counts is whether there is a law prohibiting grant-back clauses? Unfortunately, Article 101 is expressed in rather general terms, and it is necessary to look at case law and practice to understand which clauses – other than the obvious no-nos such as price fixing clauses – would fall foul of Article 101. A significant part of that exercise is looking at what DG COMP considers to be in breach of Article 101.
  3. Surely if the parties have specifically agreed to a term, it can’t be anti-competitive? Unfortunately, this argument is flawed. By definition, parties who have entered into an anti-competitive agreement have agreed the offending terms. There is no principle, as far as IP Draughts is aware, in the jurisprudence, that says that if a licensee volunteers the suggestion of anti-competitive term, that makes it alright.

ice breakerIt is open to parties to undertake their own economic and legal analysis of the market, their position within the market, the effect of the term, etc, and conclude that a term is not anti-competitive. However, this may not cut any ice with the court or DG COMP, if the matter comes to be investigated or litigated. There are so many judgment calls in competition theory – what is the relevant market, how open is the market, etc, etc – that it is difficult to predict how another economist or lawyer would view the matter.

In any case, most parties don’t have the budget or stomach for undertaking an analysis of this kind. Instead, many parties prefer to fit their agreement within one or both of the Technology Transfer Block Exemption Regulation (TTBER) or DG COMP’s Guidelines on Technology Transfer Agreements.

So, what do these documents say about grant-back clauses? First, the Guidelines, which include the following text:

An obligation to grant the licensor an exclusive licence to improvements of the licensed technology or to assign such improvements to the licensor is likely to reduce the licensee’s incentive to innovate since it hinders the licensee in exploiting the improvements, including by way of licensing to third parties.

The application of Article 5(1)(a) [of the TTBER] does not depend on whether or not the licensor pays consideration in return for acquiring the improvement or for obtaining an exclusive licence. However, the existence and level of such consideration may be a relevant factor in the context of an individual assessment under Article 101. When grant backs are made against consideration it is less likely that the obligation creates a disincentive for the licensee to innovate. In the assessment of exclusive grant backs outside the scope of the block exemption the market position of the licensor on the technology market is also a relevant factor. The stronger the position of the licensor, the more likely it is that exclusive grant back obligations will have restrictive effects on competition in innovation. The stronger the position of the licensor’s technology the more important it is that the licensee can become an important source of innovation and future competition. The negative impact of grant back obligations can also be increased in case of parallel networks of licence agreements containing such obligations. When available technologies are controlled by a limited number of licensors that impose exclusive grant back obligations on licensees, the risk of anti-competitive effects is greater than where there are a number of technologies only some of which are licensed on exclusive grant back terms.

Thus, DG COMP’s position on this issue is nuanced, and the risk of a breach may be lower if the licensor pays a market price for the grant-back. For this reason, many licence agreements that IP Draughts sees include an option to acquire rights for market value, rather than a free and automatic grant-back. Judging whether the licensor’s technology has a strong market position may be a more complex issue to resolve.

The above text refers to Article 5(1)(a) of the Technology Transfer Block Exemption Regulation, which reads as follows:

The exemption provided for in Article 2 [ie the block exemption] shall not apply to any of the following obligations contained in technology transfer agreements:

(a) any direct or indirect obligation on the licensee to grant an exclusive licence or to assign rights, in whole or in part, to the licensor or to a third party designated by the licensor in respect of its own improvements to, or its own new applications of, the licensed technology;

greyThis is part of what used to be called the grey list, ie terms which fall outside the block exemption but which are not so bad as to be included in the list of “hardcore” clauses (formerly known as the black list).

Over to you, readers. What would you do in the negotiations described above? Would you include in the licence agreement an obligation to assign back improvements automatically and without further payment? Or an option to acquire the improvements for market value? Or none of the above?

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A fresh look at indemnities

have a goFollowing last week’s post about indemnities, IP Draughts has had a go at drafting an indemnity clause from first principles, without ‘cutting and pasting’ any traditional indemnity language. His attempt can be found here.

Some points to note:

  1. The core parts of the indemnity are in clauses 1.1 and 1.2. These clauses simply use the term “indemnify” and avoid wording such as “hold harmless and defend”. Instead, the scope of the indemnity is explained in later clauses.
  2. The indemnities are designed to place responsibility on a licensee of intellectual property to indemnify the licensor, except where the liability arises from the licensor’s breach of contractual warranties (in which case the licensor indemnifies the licensee). For example, the indemnity under clause 1.1 would operate if the licensee sells a defective licensed product, his customer is injured and the customer brings a claim against the licensor.
  3. The defined term “Commercialising Entities” broadens the reach of the indemnity beyond that of many indemnities, and IP Draughts is in two minds about this aspect. It might be argued that, as the indemnity covers claims made against the licensee by third parties, it is unnecessary to spell out who those third parties might be, eg by referring to ebaythe indemnity covering use of a licensed product by people far down the supply chain, eg the child of someone who buys a licensed product on eBay from the licensee’s customer. However, an alternative view is that if the indemnity is intended to cover all liabilities that may arise from the use of the product, it is best to be explicit about this aspect. IP Draughts would be interested to hear readers’ views.
  4. The most ‘novel’ aspect of this indemnity clause is probably clause 1.4, which seeks to address questions of interpretation that have probably been the subject of reported cases, as can be seen from the case references in Contractual Indemnities by Wayne Courtney, an excellent book that was reviewed in last week’s blog posting.
  5. Clauses 1.5 and 1.6 address points that are sometimes covered in detailed indemnity clauses. IP Draughts is grateful to his friend and former colleague, Matthew Warren of Bristows, for sending him a very detailed indemnity clause after reading last week’s blog posting, which provided a convenient shortcut to drafting these terms. IP Draughts has filleted most of the ideas from Matthew’s clause but used simpler, and probably less watertight, language. Some points have been omitted, eg an obligation of confidentiality on the indemnifier with respect information learnt from the beneficiary. This point might be covered in a separate confidentiality clause of the agreement. Similarly, if it is intended to give officers and employees personal rights to enforce the indemnity, a separate ‘third party rights’ clause should make this point clear.

Clearly, there is a great deal of detail in the attached wording, even with the simplified wording that IP Draughts has used, and in several cases there are choices to be made by the drafter, eg whether to include an obligation to mitigate losses under clause 1.5(c). There are, no doubt, other points of interpretation and litigation practice that could be addressed.

What do you think of the clause?

 

 

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Standard international software licences: a pipe-dream?

opiumMany years ago, when IP Draughts was a junior associate, one of his regular clients was a software standards organisation whose members included most of the world’s largest computer companies. Although the organisation was UK-based, many of its members were US corporations.  On more than one occasion, IP Draughts heard members encouraging the organisation’s UK staff to be more international in their outlook, which in practice seemed to mean being more American.

On a similar note, IP Draughts vividly recalls the person who gave him instructions on behalf of this organisation, a lady with the title Head of Legal and Commercial, or similar, making adverse comments about an English court judgment that came out at the time. The judgment concerned the interpretation of a software licence, and IP recalls that it took a different line to a US judgment on a similar subject. The client seemed to be offended that an English court took this decision, and she was of the opinion that it was not in the UK’s interests to have laws that differed from those of the US in the area of software transactions. It should be pointed out that this client was English, but her working experience was in a US commercial environment. IP Draughts suspects that if she had been a US national she would have been more diplomatic in her comments, if she had chosen to make any comment on such a subject to a snotty-nosed English lawyer in his twenties.

These memories are prompted by two recent events.  The first is the striking observation by Larry Page, the head of Google, in light of the recent European case on the “right to be forgotten”. He is reported as saying that he regretted not being “more involved in a real debate” about privacy in Europe, and that:

We’re trying now to be more European and think about it maybe more from a European context… A very significant amount of time is going to be spent in Europe talking.

leido bookSome of the commentary on this subject has suggested that, for a US organisation, freedom of speech is a constitutional right which trumps other considerations; by contrast, European laws and attitudes, while they value freedom of speech, don’t give it this kind of overriding status.

The second event that prompts this memory is the publication of a new book, Realising the Single Software Market: Cross-Market Validity of Software License Agreements, by Jan Leido. This 627-page book is the PhD thesis of Mr Leido, a research student at Umea University in Sweden, and according to his website biography he is due to defend his thesis orally next week.

The book compares US and German laws in relation to software licensing, and as the abstract explains:

…cross-national validity of certain standard software license agreements is examined as a solution to overcome national differences and improve the emerging single software market. Cross-national validity is mapped, explained and improved under American and German law.

This book is an impressive mixture of academic and commercial discussion of the many factors that affect international software licenses and their validity, and deserves a wide audience. If IP Draughts had read it 25 years ago, he would have been armed with much better answers to the peevish complaint of his former client. More seriously, the book should be part of the prior reading for anyone involved in advising major consumer software providers on their international licensing terms.

IP Draughts wishes Mr (and surely soon to be Dr) Leido the best of luck with his viva voce.

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